Gorillas in culture
Gorilla Journal 18, June 1999
Gorillas in African Culture and Medicine
Paul Du Chaillu already wrote in 1891 about gorilla stories he had heard from the Fang people.
For example, the Fang were convinced that if a pregnant woman or her husband were to see a gorilla, even a dead one, she would give birth to a gorilla, rather than to a human child.
It is very difficult to find published information on this subject, as little has been written since about the importance of gorillas for African peoples.
One exception is Gunter Tessmapn's study of the Pangwe (Cameroon and Gabon) published in 1913.
It contains a detailed description of a secret society whose cult centres around the gorilla.
It was widely spread and called Ngi or Ngui among the Fang and Nji among the Bulu. Ngi means gorilla and is the symbol of fire and positive power (the chimpanzee represents evil).
During the Ngi celebration, a large sculpture was made after the vigorous dance of a healer.
Certain objects were placed in and around that sculpture, for example, parts of dead people (but not gorillas), and rituals were performed.
For the members of the Ngi secret society, Ngi was watching their manners.
He punished them with illness, for example with leprosy, if they broke the rules. Ngi also protected the society members as he rose at night to fight sorcerers who had left their bodies to kill people.
According to Jordi Sabater Pi, the Ngi cult has disappeared completely.
However, Klaus Paysan heard from a chief’s son in Cameroon, far away from the present gorilla distribution area, that the Ngi society was still active, but all information was kept absolutely secret.
In the meantime, much has changed. Since Qu Chaillu-s and Tessmann's days, new religions and medicine as well as new political, economic and social structures have spread across Africa.
They changed the traditional societies and the old rituals considerably or even eradicated them in many regions.
However, in many places the gorilla is still respected.
For example it is the totem of some Fang clans like the Essangui (essa=father, ngui-gonlla), the clan to which the President of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang, and former high-rankingpoliticians belong.
Some traditions have changed during the last few decades.
The Anyang in Cameroon near the border to Nigeria were formerly only allowed to hunt gorillas for the initiation of a new chief, when a gorilla had to be killed.
The chief had to eat the brain and another high-ranking person ate the heart.
Anyone who hunted gorillas on other occasions was sentenced to death.
In the 1960s, the chiefs and the traditional structure were still strong, and this taboo was observed.
At that time, the chief was the highest ranking and respected person.
Now, rich businessmen are held in more esteem than the traditional chiefs, and the taboo is no longer observed. With money, they can obtain whatever they want.
In many forest areas where traditions are still important, medico-magical products made from gorillas are regarded as more powerful and are therefore more popular than those made from chimpanzees.
In modern societies with socio-economic competition between individuals, e. g. in Cameroon, products from chimpanzees are more sought after.
The gorilla is a symbol for quiet power that prolongs the lifespan of people, whereas the chimpanzee is essentially bad; it increases luck and fortune.
Not to Be Told to Strangers
Although the Ngi secret society has been described in detail by several researchers, there may be other cults that have never been revealed to researchers or to members of other peoples.
In Cameroon, for example, in the 1960s it was forbidden to talk about the ritual use of gorillas and leopards because in that case the fetishes would lose their power.
It is also still strictly forbidden to talk about initiation rituals to strangers.
Nowadays Africans influenced by western thoughts sometimes no longer observe this restriction.
However, they often do not talk to foreigners about traditional medicine, especially medical plants, because they are suspicious that foreigners, e. g. pharmaceutical companies, will exploit this knowledge.
Myths and Legends
All over their distribution area, gorillas play special, but very different roles in the thoughts of the peoples living there.
The apes are feared, hated, avoided or admired.
In some regions of the Congo Republic, they are a symbol for inexhaustible strength.
Pregnant Bantu and pygmy women who work in plantations close to the forest go there only if accompanied by an armed man, and the other women avoid them, because silverbacks are said to attack pregnant women to kill their baby.
Kota hunters from north-eastern Gabon talk about mystic transformations between humans and gorillas or chimpanzees:
A hunter may swear that he has shot a gorilla, but afterwards it is discovered that a person from the village had died from this shot.
Near the Virunga National Park, the gorilla is considered as a bad spirit.
Everyone who pronounces its name (Ngagi) in the morning before eating or drinking something is supposed to lose all luck that day and to be exposed to bad things.
Permission only to Certain Persons
Merfield and Miller noted in 1956 that 60 km south of Yaounde, women were not allowed to eat gorilla meat.
Only a few years ago, Bowen-Jones reported that in the Odzala region (Congo Republic) women do not eat gorilla meat because they are afraid that if they did so, their husbands would become as brutal as gorillas.
The traditional importance of gorillas for Bantu women is often different from that for men, and the medicine made from gorillas is therefore very different too.
Women's medicine has psychosomatic effects; proven healing methods are used always.
The knowledge is passed from the mother to the daughter.
This does not seem to be the case in the traditional medicine of male Bantu.
In the pygmy peoples (Baka in north-eastern Gabon, Bakola in north-western Congo, Babendjele in northern Congo) traditional medicine is apparently known and used by men and women alike - except for medicine used for children's and women's illnesses.
However, the kinds and the number of medicines forbidden for women are different from that for men.
Klaus Paysan noticed in 1964 that gorillas which were transported on trucks as bush meat in southern Cameroon did not have heads.
The head and the heart had to be given to the chief. The Fang in Gabon occasionally carve figures with the sagittal crest of a silverback gorilla.
In some regions, masks with the sagittal crest can be found or masks with gorilla teeth to give them the power of the apes.
Among the Bamileke, only the chief is allowed to wear the mask with the sagittal crest.
In the region of the Anyang and Nyang sometimes fetish shields are decorated with gorilla skulls to transfer the animals' power to the shields.
Only chiefs may use these shields.
This habit was after 1980 even spread tonorth-western Cameroon.
The Fon of Babungo had two of these shields with baby gorilla and chimpanzee skulls in the palace.
The Ekoi or Nyang had ancestor masks with gorilla skin and hairs.
The Kwele (northern Congo) have a circumcision ceremony called Beka.
The initiates as well as some of the guests are obliged to eat gorilla or chimpanzee meat. This is a symbol of power and virility.
Different Peoples in Different Habitats
Two peoples living in the same region do not always have the same medical/magical relationship towards the two types of ape.
There are differences between pygmy and Bantu, but also between forest and savannah Bantu.
Adolf Friedrich Graf von Mecklenburg reported from his trip to the Virunga Volcanoes in 1909 that for the Twa he met the gorilla was umuzi- mu (totem) and they were not allowed to kill it.
In the distribution area of the western lowland gorillas, the pygmies generally have more respect for gorillas than for chimpanzees.
They are not afraid of gorillas but are suspicious of chimpanzees.
However, recently pygmies have also killed gorillas because they get money for selling the most highly esteemed body parts to the Bantu.
Bantu are more afraid of gorillas than of chimpanzees.
The Bulu in southern Cameroon, the Fang of Woleu, and the Ntumu in northern Gabon and the Kwele in Congo / Cameroon are more interested in the chimpanzee for medical/magical purposes.
On the contrary, Bantu peoples living in the forest (Kota in Gabon/Congo, Lumbu and Yombe in southern Congo) and pygmies in general prefer the gorilla.
They do not kill and eat chim- panzees because they look similar to humans and because they do not taste as delicious as gorillas.
A favourite dish in the villages is soup from gorilla Intestines.
Even some savannah peoples who are not living within the gorilla distribution area use gorillas.
The Bamileke let their male children drink from bowls made from gorilla skulls to give them strength.
The Ibo in Nigeria hire hunters to bring them gorillas for certain magic offerings that are believed to bring good luck.
These rituals are no longer performed by the chiefs today but by business-men who can afford it.
The Chamba in north-western Cameroon live in the savannah but use some powerful rain forest animals - elephants, buffaloes and gorillas for certain purposes.
For example, during his initiation a new chief has to eat gorilla brain as it is also usual among some forest peoples.
This ritual is still performed today.
Medicine, Magic and Fetishes
In some regions, for example in the D. R. Congo, most traditional healers have been replaced, and much of the knowledge about traditional medicine has vanished because the people are treated with western medicine.
However, in many regions the traditional use of gorillas is still common.
Eating gorilla meat often is a ritual act to incorporate the gorilla's power.
Chimpanzees are not eaten for this purpose.
The Fang in Rio Muni often eat gorillas as simple bush meat, but a few parts of these apes are kept as fetishes, for example the canines for good luck during the hunts and the fingernails and dried hands for good luck and female fertility.
Paul Du Chaillu noted in 1861 that the Fang very carefully saved the brain ... charms were made of this - charms of two kinds.
Prepared In one way, the charm gave the wearer a strong hand for the hunt, and another it gave him success with women.... Nothing makes a man so brave as to have a fetish of gorilla's brain.
This gives a man a strong heart.
Some parts, especially the head and genitals, are still widely used in south-western Cameroon and notably neighbouring regions in Nigeria for medical purposes.
The hairs are sometimes used to manufacture local charm.
Nigerian farmers use belts, necklaces and bangles made of wild animal by-products (for example gorilla skin).
Gorillas in culture
Embedded with herbs for protection against witches and for immunity from all diseases and enemies.
In Cameroon, used for cupping. Cupping at wrist, elbow and shoulder strengthens the arm, cupping at foot and knee strengthens the leg, cupping in the face, at the temple and forehead strengthens the head and improves the reaction during quarrels, cupping in the back of the neck and at the loin strengthens the back - especially in pygmies who sometimes have to carry heavy loads.
Ground burnt lower rib is used for cupping on the breast, which gives strength and resistance in breast and belly during quarrels.
It is used on the trunk during cupping or massage (with palm oil and plant powder) to heal the illness called "maladie de cote.
The fetish Nzobi, one of the most powerful and highly esteemed fetishes in eastern Congo, contains several dozen components, including gorilla finger, lan Redmond found gorilla hands being sold at all fetish market stalls in Brazzaville that he visited in 1989.
Usually the fingers were removed because a potion is made from them which gives the strength of gorillas.
The finger bone is burnt until it is black and ground to powder; then an incision is made in the arm and the powder is rubbed into the incision to mix it with the blood.
The dried skin of the supraorbital ridges is carried close to the body for protection by the Mboko in northern Congo; if the person who carries it meets a gorilla, it is submissive and disappears without causing any problems.
From the naked skin of silverbacks' breast -a fetish against punches is produced by the Kwele in Gabon.
A few long hairs that have been collected in a fresh gorilla nest are carried in a bag or between ear and head; this is said to protect against attacks because the one who carries them is invisible for gorillas (Baka innorth-eastern Gabon).
A dried gorilla hand is a fetish which improves the punch during fights and the resistance against punches.
Sometimes, the object for magic does not have to be a gorilla body part.
Peoples in North Kivu believe that if a branch from a gorilla nest is put on or under the bed of a man, this man will beat his wife and drive her away.
If a branch or other material from a gorilla nest is dropped in an office, the head of the office will have many problems with his superior and staff and can lose his job.
Although many old traditions are lost, gorillas still play an important role in the We of many Africans.
For many medico-magical purposes the apes have to be killed.
However, so far it has not been reported from anywhere that this poses a real danger for the gorilla populations,
Dr. Angela Meder observed the behaviour and development of captive lowland gorillas for 10 years. A major aim of tier various studies was the improvement of the management, rearing and housing of gorillas in zoos. Today she works as a book editor. Since 1992 she has been part of the Board of Directors of Beiygorllla & RegenwaV DireMtiitfe.